Pre-Columbian fire regimes in lowland tropical rainforests of southeastern Peru

TitlePre-Columbian fire regimes in lowland tropical rainforests of southeastern Peru
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2012
AuthorsMcMichael, CH, Correa-Metrio, A, Bush, MB
JournalPalaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology

We document the fire history of the forests of a well-studied ecological research station (Los Amigos) in western Amazonia through soil charcoal analysis, and compare results with data from a nearby lake district known to have supported pre-Columbian human populations. We present novel methods of soil charcoal analysis that improve on its current limitations by accounting for variability in post-fire charcoal deposition, problematic age–depth relationships, and the presence of weathered or regionally-deposited charcoal particles that allow statistical comparisons of fire history characteristics between regions. The fire histories indicate that the research station experienced less intensive historical fire and pre-Columbian disturbance than the lake district. Dated charcoal particles indicated that while soil depth could not be used to predict fire age, fragments below 20 cm depth were generally older than 500 years. Frequent fires have not occurred in either region during the last 1000 years, but fire events in both regions were significantly synchronous from 1000 to 4000 cal. yr BP. The sampling design and methods that provide an ecologically and statistically valid avenue for comparing fire history characteristics between regions can be modified to suit other ecosystems. The results presented here establish confidence that the patterns and processes of the lowland tropical rainforests studied at Los Amigos are not affected by intense or recurrent historical fires. These data also suggest that forests of Madre de Dios, Peru are not post-successional remnants of a ‘cultural parkland’, as suggested by some Amazonian archeologists.